The fierce females of film and TV

The female characters who are forging a path of power through pop culture
By Esther D. Kustanowitz  Published on 06/02/2017 at 12:30 PM EDT

I just came back from seeing Wonder Woman, which I loved. But what I loved the most was the beginning (this is not a spoiler!), as we saw this island of Amazons, strong, fierce females, training and strengthening each other, for a war that might one day come, but also celebrating each others’ skill and aptitude. I found myself crying fairly early in that film, awed by a world—albeit a fictional one—of such powerful women.

It reminded me of when I saw Logan, when Laura (the 10-year-old Dafne Keen) bares her claws for the first time on-screen, dispatching a warehouse full of fully-armed military men and emerging with the team leader’s head under her arm. Again, I started crying. Not at the extreme violence of the scene, but at the performance of such a young actor—speechless for most of the film and acting through fierce eyes, powerful posture, grunts and breaths—conveying strength even in small size and wearing a blood-and-dirt-streaked hoodie. (For more about how Keen beat up Hugh Jackman in her audition, see the audition tape here, via The Mary Sue.)

In both cases, my tears were tears of relief at what I was seeing: an emerging on-screen tradition of fierce females, girls and young women who fight for freedom or justice or survival, forging a path of power through pop culture.

For those of us who sought role models for their strength instead of runway models for their beauty—those of us who yearned for heroines instead of heroes—we found a few here and there. In the 1970s, we had Batgirl (in the Adam West Batman series), the Bionic Woman and Wonder Woman. We had Princess Leia, a quippy royal who dressed in regal whites but didn’t mind getting them dirty to save herself and everyone else.

When the ’90s arrived, we had Buffy: a blonde cheerleader type who emerged at the center of a rich universe full of power, eventually accessible not just to the eponymous heroine, but also literally empowering others around her.

Those of us who knew that many of our favorite X-Men were actually X-Women were drawn by Jean Grey’s power to read other people’s minds and to move objects with her own, or to Rogue’s tragic gift that ensured that anyone she touched would be destroyed (a poignant metaphor for many of us in our worst moments).

And we rejoiced as Veronica Mars, the teenager with an adult’s darkness to her, owned her own snark and her own smarts, fixing other people’s problems while coping with deep pain of her own.

We also had our witches: We had the Charmed Ones fighting demons, demonstrating sisterhood (and OK, displaying midriffs) every episode; Buffy’s bestie Willow Rosenberg (a Jewish witch to boot!) came into her own, grappled with intoxicating power and nearly destroyed the world before ultimately saving it; and eventually, we found Hermione (yes, I know, technically half-wizard, half-Muggle), the know-it-all who actually did know almost all, and whose resourcefulness undoubtedly ensured that Ron and Harry made it to the end of the narrative. (Hoping that’s not a spoiler.)

And now, we’re seeing even more strength, power and leadership from the ladies of pop culture.

Witness the clones of Orphan Black, all played by the incredible Tatiana Maslany: a brainy scientist; a savvy, suburban, competitive housewife with bake-sale-cloaked ambition; an inquisitive detective; a con artist; and others. Or the Ghostbusters reboot, with strong performances from Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, and one of this year’s comedic heroes, Kate McKinnon, who has simply slayed in every SNL role she has undertaken from Hillary Clinton to Justin Bieber, from Kellyanne Conway to Jeff Sessions.

The most recent films in the Star Wars universe were anchored by heroines: both Rey and Jyn Erso were independent, mission-driven and strong. They’re Force-sensitive, fight fiercely, know how to fly a Corellian freighter and use blasters. And they didn’t need a man to direct or love them. (Don’t you dare hold Rey’s hand while you’re running, Finn.)

In The Lego Batman Movie, Barbara Gordon succeeds her father as commissioner of Gotham City and kicks ass alongside Batman, teaching him the value of chosen family and being awesome at your job. (She graduated from the Harvard School for Police, so be very impressed.) Moana—already on a path ascending to leadership of her tribe—sought out the demi-god Maui because the legend told her she had to (and learned what she could from him). But in the end, aided by the spirit of her grandmother, it was Moana who would save the world. For a glorious moment, we had Agent Peggy Carter fighting the forces of darkness. And now we have Laura, a Kid Wolverine with a childhood and existence none of us would envy, but whose power is a remarkable force; and Diana, whose sworn duty it is to save humanity.


Wonder Woman is here—a female superhero movie directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins. And there are others on the way. At the end of March, we learned that Joss Whedon was close to being signed for a stand-alone Batgirl movie, news that could only have gladdened our hearts more if Joss were a woman writer/director who was somehow also still Joss Whedon. (We’re still in a place where we don’t typically get equality both behind and in front of the camera. Yet.)

Running over this list again, I’m also struck by who isn’t there. Aside from Leslie Jones, no women or girls of color. Aside from Melissa McCarthy, not much diversity in body type either. After attending BinderCon, a women writers’ conference in early April, I’m newly aware of the struggle that women of color and who identify as LGBTQ have faced in trying to make sure their stories are told. And I’m awed by their achievements. For starters, check out Gloria Calderon Kellett, an executive producer of Netflix’s One Day at a Time reboot; Tanya Saracho, who is now helming a new show for Starz; and the team behind “Her Story,” a six-episode web-series that looks inside the dating lives of trans and queer women. All these women shared their stories of rejection and success at the conference.

Despite the swell of women’s stories and the emergence of women as viable action heroes (or -oines) we’re not quite at “equality” yet. But maybe seeing these strong, capable, independent women on-screen will inspire us all—women, men, or those who otherwise identify—to seek heroism within. If we be mutants, may we use our powers for good. If we be slayers, let us use whatever is at our disposal to aid us in our fight against evil and empower others.

We are all Wonder Women—may we champion each other and ourselves.

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